The Irish News view: It was inevitable that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson would have to face down his unionist critics. But why has it taken him so long?

Donaldson speech points to DUP’s Stormont return

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson speaking in the house of Commons with Ian Paisley sitting behind
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson made an unusually demonstrative speech in the House of Commons, while fellow DUP MP Ian Paisley watched on

After an uncharacteristically punchy speech in Westminster - during which he denounced his unionist critics, revealed he had been threatened and spoke of his commitment to power-sharing - Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has raised expectations that the saga of the DUP’s Stormont boycott is at long last grinding towards its inevitable conclusion.

If the DUP leader cannot get his party back into the Assembly by the February 8 deadline, then it seems clear that he never will. If that happens, new arrangements to administer Northern Ireland will need to be devised and it is widely accepted that these will have to involve input from Dublin.

But if he can deliver on his stated belief that devolution remains the way forward, he will have the support of the vast majority of people and political parties in the north.

The speech and other recent developments all suggest that a crunch moment of decision is imminent. Pressure has been building on Sir Jeffrey and his pro-Stormont allies, and some of that revealed itself in the passion with which he delivered his remarks.

However, it is important to maintain some perspective on what is, after all, just one speech. We still need to see action.

Sir Jeffrey singled out Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice for special criticism and spoke of a “tiny minority” who “don’t want Stormont back”. There had been a “stirring up” of tensions, he said, and he recounted a disgraceful episode - which has been widely condemned and reported to the PSNI - in which he was threatened “by those who never put on a uniform”.

Yet it isn’t that long ago that Sir Jeffrey was content to share platforms with Mr Allister and a range of unelected figures from unionism’s most eccentric fringes, or to endorse and amplify voices which have done plenty of stirring.

Having empowered those voices, it is unsurprising that they now feel betrayed - the spectre of Lundy is never far away - by the prospect of a DUP return to Stormont when the protocol concessions on offer seem modest at best. But that opposition is entirely feeble - a ‘Keep Your Word’ letter writing campaign is hardly the Ulster Covenant, while the TUV has limited electoral impact and it is difficult to see a true DUP schism developing.

It all leaves one overriding question hanging over the DUP’s near-two year boycott: What was it all for?